Blasphemy for 8th graders

Published: September 27, 2011
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An 8th grader was accused for blasphemy for misspelling the word 'naat'.

If we were wondering whether Pakistan could sink any lower as a nation where morals are concerned, I must say we definitely exceeded our expectations this past week. 

All issues related to the blasphemy law and its effect on the fabric of the current mindset in Pakistan can probably take a backseat to the idiocy that raised its head this week. In a spate of vivid defence of religion against the evil world, a teacher accused a 13-year-old Christian girl of blasphemy, alleging that a misspelt word had turned from praise to curse.

Of course, the initial reaction from all corners within and outside the country was predictable:

a)      The shocked liberals and mild-conservatives alike raised their hackles

b)      The ultra-conservatives were convinced of malicious intent

c)       Social networks were abuzz with condemnations of the teacher, the preachers, the girl and of course the inevitable RAW/CIA/Mossad connection

After all, the entire Western world has engineered the workings of the pen and wrist of a 13-year-old in a Muslim country.

Since enough and more comments and blog-posts have covered the above travesty of intelligence, I want to dwell on an aspect of the story which has given many of us cause for pause:

If there is no compulsion in Islam, why was this non-Muslims girl writing a naat for the Urdu language subject in an examination?

The incident is not one in isolation, but which has been conveniently swept under the rug for decades: the indoctrination of Islamic thought and doctrine into every aspect of culture, irrespective of the damage it causes to the culture itself.

When I was studying in St Lawrence’s Boys’ School in Karachi from 85-95, I vividly remember having to learn the hamd and the naat by rote, from Grade 3 to Grade 8. I am not talking about the Islamiyat classes. The hamd and naat were on page 1 and in the centre of the book respectively. The Urdu textbooks in our syllabus were issued by the Sindh Textbook Board and were mandatory for Urdu studies if you wanted to sit the Matriculation examinations when you hit grade 9 and 10.

This, by the way, was only one part of the problem.

Instead of a syllabus flowing with beautiful Urdu literature by Manto, Faiz, Haider, Iqbal and others, we had these sparsely populating our primary grade textbooks while the bulk would be made up of stories of the great Islamic conversions by the wonderful Muslim heroes of Arabia, who came and saved the former-infidels of the region. Day after day, we were forced to learn a history that had nothing to do with Urdu, but with Islam’s superiority.

In a Christian school, with Christian students.

We had no choice, as we were matriculation-based. When I reached grade 9, however, the introduction of a higher level of prose and the subsequent tashreeh classes we had to undertake opened my mind to a whole new realm of this beautiful and pure language. Suddenly, I saw religion completely disappear.

Needless to say, it became quite obvious to me at that point that under the pretext of an education in literature and linguistics, the children of Pakistan were being indoctrinated with the ideals that everything around them, their culture, language and history, was completely Islamic or from the Muslims. Zia, it seemed, had won

Which brings me to the 8th grade student accused of blasphemy. Why on earth was a poor girl of a non-Muslim religion being forced to learn – as I and countless others were – the prayers of another religion to pass an exam on language skills?

Why is it necessary for her to profess the faith of another, simply to earn a piece of paper that says to the world ‘I am literate’?

Before people jump on the ‘bash-Anthony’ bandwagon saying ‘well we were forced to learn the Our Father in the convent schools’, let me state clearly that I am against that as well. There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to force someone to learn the prayers of another in the name of education. It is fundamental violation of their rights as an individual. It is a guaranteed right based in the Constitution of Pakistan.

But lets not dwell on that. We all know just how well people’s rights are respected here, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Firstly, the die-hard defenders of anything blasphemy related have already made up their minds that pre-teen and early-teen girls are mature enough to know the difference between writing (not understanding, mind you, but writing) the words ‘laanat’ and ‘naat’. Apparently, these bigots seem to miss the point that if they are mature enough to understand this, surely they are mature enough to know what happened to Asia Bibi, and would think twice before bringing a rabid blood-thirsty mob to their homes with their actions.

The comments I hear on forums including right here on The Express Tribune scare me, where some even go so far as to become pseudo-handwriting experts, convinced that the dot on the noon in ‘naat‘ has no business moving a few atoms to the left.

Blasphemy for poor farmer-women, then shop-keepers, then doctors, and now 8th-graders. Stay warned, the next step will be blasphemy accusations on fetuses. Lord knows what the unborn must be cooking up in their half-formed brains.

Secondly, the good thing that has come out of the ridiculous injustice this girl is facing is that for once, this issue is bringing the indoctrination to light. I’m sure there must be someone from Pakistan’s educational establishment that can answer this one question:

Why are non-Muslims students in Pakistan forced to study the hamd and naat in an Urdu textbook?

Anthony Permal

Anthony Permal

A Catholic theologian who works as a digital marketer in Dubai. He tweets @anthonypermal (twitter.com/anthonypermal)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.